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March 10, 2014

Researchers tackle dangerous, but poorly understood biofilms

One goal is to control biofilm persister cells, which can hide out from antibiotics

Until now, biofilms—colonies of microbes like bacteria that grow together in a matrix produced by the cells themselves--have been poorly understood. Yet, they can be costly and dangerous. Infections related to hip- and knee-replacement surgery are often related to biofilms. And, biofilms are highly tolerant to antibiotics. Persister cells actually go dormant during treatment and, when the treatment stops, they return and repopulate. Biofilms in oil and water pipelines can rot the metal from inside, destroying infrastructure and potentially introducing contaminants into the water supply.

Coming up with effective ways to control biofilms starts with understanding the complicated communications among biofilm cells, as well as interactions between bacteria and host cells.

With support from the Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation within the Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF), one research team working to advance understanding of biofilms is led by Dacheng Ren and colleagues at Syracuse University: Rebecca Bader, Yan-Yeung Luk, Radhakrishna Sureshkumar and Roy Welch.

The team creates synthetic biofilms to better understand their formation and behavior. And, they use supercomputer models to study the molecular structure of biofilms.

“Using molecular dynamics simulations, my coworkers and I in the Sureshkumar research group probe the interaction between the host cell, signaling factors, and the bacterial biofilm matrix based on computer models of the primary host cell and biofilm matrix constituents,” explains Stephen DeSalvo, an undergraduate student who works on the modeling. “Using these simulations, lipid bilayer deformation, translocation free energies, and polymer matrix characterization can be analyzed. The real power of these modeling techniques comes with using the physical interactions between system components described via simulations to provide valuable insight into phenomena observed in the biofilm laboratory. Ultimately, both qualitative and quantitative simulation results may aid biofilm and persister cell therapeutic research, as well as future drug delivery breakthroughs.”

The researchers are working on a broad range of approaches to disrupting biofilms--from interrupting the cell communications to manipulating the persister cells to make them more vulnerable to antibiotics. In this multidisciplinary environment, the ideas are infectious!

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1137186, Deciphering and Controlling the Signaling Processes in Bacterial Multicellular Systems and Bacteria-Host Interactions.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.